TEXT OF ESSAY

Is genetic engineering "playing God"? Let's ignore the fact that this statement contains the implicit assumption that God exists in the first place. Suppose that God exists. What exactly does it mean to "play God" in the first place? If playing God is simply leaving less happenings to chance by gaining mastery over our environment -- through technology -- then humans have been playing God since roughly 50,000 years ago. If genetic engineering is "playing God" then so is every other technology. If you brush your teeth in the morning, technically, you're "playing God." What, did you think toothbrushes grew on trees? The list of technologies that we take for granted, that apply to our definition of "playing God," are sufficiently high enough such that the phrase "playing God" is trivial. Why bother using a phrase which applies almost universally to what we do? But if we are "playing God", I don't see anything wrong with that; we're taking control over something that apparently an omniscient, omnipotent supernatural agent somehow couldn't handle properly (ie. allegedly "creating" suboptimal evolution).

Some Hollywood writers and science-fiction authors would have you believe that genetic engineering is not worth funding. But fiction is not a reliable model of the future. Fiction writers are principally storytellers, not futurists. Thus it is important to avoid the logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence.

Genetic engineering has the potential to allow humans to modify their genes, but hold on - doesn't this sound familiar? Natural selection does almost exactly the same thing! Random mutations build up over multiple generations, and mutations that produce genes that increase the fitness (that is, chances of an organism passing its genes to the next generation through reproduction) of an organism are kept. But evolution is slow! Evolutionary biology in fact shows exactly how slow (and stupid) is evolution. For instance, a gene conveying a 3% fitness advantage, spreading through a population of 800,000, would require an average of 906 generations to reach universality in the gene pool. As Eliezer Yudkowsky notes, "Contrast all this to a human programmer, who can design a new complex mechanism with a hundred interdependent parts over the course of a single afternoon... [but] [t]here's no Evolution Fairy who can watch the gene pool and say, 'Hm, that gene seems to be spreading rapidly - I should distribute it to everyone.'" In contrast, genetic engineering could allow people to do what evolution already does (distribute beneficial mutations through a population) - except people could do it faster, more efficiently, and even more fairly.

Speculation about how humans might enhance their cognitive abilities with future technologies (ie. genetic engineering) raises ethical questions. For instance, people with radically enhanced cognitive abilities might gain advantages in terms of income, strategic planning, and so forth over people who forgo cognitive enhancement. Geneticist Lee Silver worries that the enhanced, having gained higher cogntive abilities than unenhanced, would use their superior skills to dominate and exploit the unenhanced. If such cognitive enhancements were gained through germline genetic intervention, the resulting improvements could be inherited by the children of the enhanced, with subsequent improvements eventually resulting in the forming of a new species, which might prove to threaten unenhanced humans. But the notion that enhancement might result in a two-tier society is pretty implausible. First, biomedical advancements tend to have the greatest benefit for people who have a low level of cognitive functioning - this is simply a special example of the law of diminishing returns. For instance, if you're a genius, you already have a "better" configuration of genes than a village idiot, strictly in terms of intelligence, so there's less modification that could be done to improve your genes that code for intelligence, and thus, a village idiot would improve more than you would with the same modification. Second, if people are free to choose which enhancements to use, it is unlikely that society will split cleanly into only two groups, the enhanced and unenhanced. (See "Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement", esp. pages 15-16, by Nick Bostrom). Third, we already live in a diverse society with a lot of variance in characteristics, where people could come into conflict, but usually don't: educated and uneducated, healthy and unhealthy, and so forth.

What are the main reasons for doing genetic engineering? Why bother modifying our DNA? Evolution sucks: it's slow and stupid. During crossover between your parent's genes, there's a chance that a copying error can occur, which might result in a genetic disorder. Or you could just inherit a genetic disease, which has just as much of a negative impact on your life outcome. However, it makes no difference to me how someone can be screwed from the start, whether it's genes or lead-based paint, pesticides or Down's Syndrome, only that they are at all - I consider that a horrible situation, and the only way I see how to fix that situation is using technology. If genetic engineering allows people to eliminate genetic disorders, and amplify desirable genes (ie. ones that impact intelligence), it seems like common sense to me to do so, whether in plants, animals, or humans. If we value characteristics such as intelligence, then it stands to reason that we should try to enhance the genes that code for intelligence. If we values characteristics such as happiness, then we should try to enhance the genes that code for happiness. Perhaps we could also use genetic engineering to extend human health and lifespans. If we value physical attractiveness, then we should modify the genes in such a way to alter it to our liking.

In almost every conversation about genetic engineering, you'll probably hear at least one person raising the specter of "designer babies" (usually said in a portentous, wary tone of voice). This fear arises mainly over parents being able to alter any genes, especially genes that code for physical characteristics in an embryo, using in-vitro fertilization. In a BBC article on the topic, Dr. Gillian Lockwood, a UK fertility expert and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ ethics committee offers the following: "If it gets to the point where we can decide which gene or combination of genes are responsible for blue eyes or blonde hair, what are you going to do with all those other embryos that turn out like me to be ginger with green eyes?” 'She warned against “turning babies into commodities that you buy off the shelf."' Lockwood appeals to emotion, but does not provide any logical reason(s) why parents shouldn't alter physical characteristics of their embryos in vitro. Lockwood seems to be implying that genetics should be random - but the traits that code for physical appearance are selected regardless of whether in vitro modification is done or not. Either you want genetics to "select" which genes get combined in an embryo, which is random, or you want parents to have the choice to do it themselves. Personally, I'd go for the parental choice. Parents are way smarter than chromosmal crossover, and thus are better able to select desirable traits. Furthermore, judgment of attractiveness of physical traits is partly universal to all human cultures, so there is a good chance that they'll be better at selecting genes that code for physical attractiveness.

Here's an argument I'm tired of hearing: 10 people on different occasions, saying something along the lines of "genetic engineering will lead down a slippery slope to disastrous consequences." A slippery slope argument states that a relatively small first step inevitably leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant impact. The fallacious version of the argument (which the above people used) ignores the possibility of middle ground and assumes a discrete transition from category A to category B. The arguer assumed a discrete transition between genetic engineering, and "disastrous consequences", when in fact there are many possibilities of how genetic engineering might affect reality.

Contrary to popular belief, cloning isn't only about creating identical copies of someone's DNA (human cloning: the creation of a genetically identical copy of a human, human cell, or human tissue). Cloning can also be used to farm organs, cells, tissues, and so forth. Thus I don't think the ban on human cloning in the US is justified. Nevertheless, the main benefits of cloning occur at the cellular level, where damaged cells or organs can be replaced. Because of human cloning, the days of silicone breast implants and other cosmetic procedures that may cause immune disease should soon be over. With cloning, instead of using materials foreign to the body for such procedures, doctors will be able to manufacture bone, fat, connective tissue, or cartilage that matches the patients tissues exactly. Anyone will able to have their appearance altered to their satisfaction without the leaking of silicone gel into their bodies or the other problems that occur with present day plastic surgery. Victims of terrible accidents that deform the face should now be able to have their features repaired with new, safer, technology. Limbs for amputees may be regenerated. Likewise with human cloning, animal cloning can improve livestock output and thus improve food output and efficiency in our agriculture. I could go on about the therapeutic benefits of cloning, but really, it doesn't seem like many people are disagreeing over whether or not it should be used.

Embryonic stem cells can be grown to produce organs or tissues to repair or replace damaged ones. Skin for burn victims, brain cells for the brain damaged, spinal cord cells for quadriplegics and paraplegics, hearts, lungs, livers, and kidneys could be produced. By combining this technology with human cloning technology it may be possible to produce needed tissue for suffering people that will be free of rejection by their immune systems. Conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart failure, degenerative joint disease, and other problems may be made curable if the federal ban on human cloning in the US is lifted.

I've heard outcries from opponents of embryonic stem cell technology claiming that is "unethical" because it currently requires the destruction of human embryos; I don't think this claim is adequately justified. First, embryonic stem cells are harvested from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro —in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman's body. Second, the embyros from which human embryonic stem cells are derived are typically four or five days old and are a ball of cells called a blastocyst , which consists of 50–150 cells. Blastocysts are a cluster of human cells that have not differentiated into distinct organ tissue; making cells of the inner cell mass no more "human" than a skin cell. Third, embryos, while of value, are not equivalent to human life while they are still incapable of surviving outside the womb (i.e. they only have the potential for life). Fourth, more than a third of of zygotes do not implant after conception. Thus, far more embryos are lost due to chance than are proposed to be used for embryonic stem cell research or treatments. Fifth, embryonic stem cells have the potential to grow indefinitely in a laboratory environment and can differentiate into almost all types of bodily tissue. This makes embryonic stem cells an attractive prospect for treating a wide range of diseases. In vitro fertilization generates hundreds to hundreds of thousands of unused embryos. In Australia alone, 70,000 embryos are left unused. Many of these thousands of IVF embryos are scheduled for destruction. Using them for scientific research applies a resource that would otherwise be wasted. So then if these embryos are being destroyed anyway, why not use them for stem cell research or treatments? In any case, the social, economic and personal of the diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat are far greater than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos.

As evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins put it, "The feeling that members of one's own species deserve special moral consideration as compared with members of other species is old and deep...A human foetus, with no more human feeling than an amoeba, enjoys a reverence and legal protection far in excess of those granted of an adult chimpanzee. Yet the chimp feels and thinks and -- according to recent experimental evidence -- may even be capable of learning a form of human language. The foetus belongs to our own species, and is instantly accorded special priveleges and rights because of it ("The Selfish Gene", p.10). Fortunately, President Obama (as opposed to President George W. Bush Jr.) realizes the importance of embryonic stem cell research.

As Stephen remarks, "... I’m tired of hearing stories about Jimmy, who overcame his learning disability to become a mathematician, I’m tired of people trying to pull on my heartstrings with corny images, set to Sarah McLaughlin music, of people who overcame their various diseases to do the wonderful things they did. Because all I see are stories of people with amazing wills who could have gone that much farther if they didn’t have their disease. In essence, I think that genetic enhancement won’t eliminate the journey, but instead will change the starting point of that journey. Instead of stories about subpar people overcoming things that the average person could, we would have more stories of people achieving things that we never though possible [sic]."

Recommended reading: Transhumanism as Simplified Humanism, Transhumanism, Stephen's Essay

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